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Three Lessons Learned From This Year's United Nations Climate Change Conference

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Will Hackman


By Will Hackman (MPP'18,  Founder of McCourt E&E and GSEI Student Leader)

From Nov. 6 to 10, I represented Georgetown and the Global Social Enterprise Initiative at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. It’s a whirlwind, 24-7, two-week circus with dozens of negotiations and countless side events happening simultaneously every day late into the evening. It’s fun and torturous, fast-paced and boring, hope-filled and pessimistic, culturally immersive and insulated all at once. Each day ratchets the adrenaline higher with so many reminders of what’s at stake, the sense of urgency, and the impending doom if we do nothing.

This year’s conference was my third on behalf of Georgetown. I’ve been specializing in energy, environmental, and climate change policy in my McCourt public policy Master’s program and I’ve learned a lot. But there is no substitute for attending these conferences where world leaders and diplomats from 195 countries come together with tens of thousands of “observers” (like myself) -- from academia, advocacy organizations, NGOs, and the private sector. The conference provides a forum for discussion on reducing carbon emissions, adapting our infrastructure to the changing climate, unlocking private sector capital, new technology, the latest science, and everything in between.

I have three main takeaways from this year’s conference:

1.              What happens now “pre-2020” will determine the climate pathway we are on.

The science is clear and twenty-three years of UN climate meetings have resolutely determined that, if we don’t want to riskily geo-engineer our planet back to artificial stability later this century, we need to de-carbonize the world’s economy in every sector immediately. New research published in the journal Science provides yet another data point to this regard and concludes that global carbon emissions need to peak by 2020 at the latest and fall to around zero by 2050 in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals. There is a cap on the total amount of carbon we can emit into the atmosphere before we irreversibly push the climate beyond its breaking point. Peaking global carbon emissions by 2020 and aggressively reducing emissions after that will help us avoid blowing past that cap. These claims are backed up by a wide-body of research including from the UN’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN Environment Program, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, and others.

2.              We are not moving fast enough.

To be fair, the Paris Agreement was a huge achievement that was just passed two years ago. It took a long time for countries to agree climate change was a problem worth addressing and many failed attempts at turning that acknowledgement into an international agreement. Still, if you add up the best-case-scenario plans every country put forward to reduce their emissions under the Paris Agreement, you still collectively add up to more than three-degrees Celsius of warming (or more) by the end of the century. That is a full degree higher than the two-degree disaster point the Paris Agreement was created to avoid. In global climate terms, this extra degree of warming is a big deal. The difference between 1.5C and 2C of warming (just half a degree), for instance, could be the difference between many small-island nations going under water or not.

More aggressive plans to reduce carbon emissions are needed from all countries. Diplomats openly admit current plans are inadequate in speeches at these UN conferences and I heard quite a few calls to strengthen commitments. Unfortunately, domestic policies are not being passed on the scale needed to close the gap. This is a problem for developed and developing countries alike. Fossil fuel extraction is still being subsidized by many countries including the United States – which has a $700 billion annual subsidy, according to the IMF. “This has to stop,” as Al Gore stated in an impassioned speech on the topic. Ending fossil fuel subsidies is one step to increase renewable energy investment and reduce carbon emissions. Putting a price on carbon is another. Whatever the path, the time for action is now. If we continue on our current trajectory, emissions levels will continue to rise well beyond 2020 and we will lock in a dangerous trajectory of warming that will lead to climate disaster.

3.              Despite the seemingly insurmountable task at hand, there is hope.

As with any global effort or movement, there is backsliding. The United States announced its intention of leaving the Paris Agreement at the first possible date (2020). On Monday of this week, the US hosted an event at the conference to highlight fossil fuels – “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels in Climate Mitigation” – featuring speakers from major coal company Peabody Energy. This has been likened to, “promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

However, a coalition of US governors, mayors, universities, faith-leaders, and businesses that represent more than half the entire US economy and population formed a group committed to achieving the United States’ Paris Agreement emissions reductions targets despite the federal government. They are the “We Are Still In” coalition and they set up their own “rogue” United States Climate Action Center at the conference with non-stop events to highlight policies they are passing at the city, state, and corporate levels to incentivize clean energy and reduce emissions. “If these non-federal actors were a country, their economy would be the third largest in the world,” according to their press release on November 11.

Republican Mayor of Carmel, Indiana Jim Brainard summed up the We Are Still In coalition’s sentiment as he addressed a packed crowd at the opening event of the US Climate Action Center last week. “What I can tell you is that the United States is going to meet our Paris Agreement goals – with or without the federal government – cities and states are going to get it done. It’s important to point out to people from other countries that mayors and governors have a lot of power in the US. Just because the federal government isn’t acting, we can still act.”

There are other points of optimism you feel being at the UN climate conference. There has been a huge increase in media attention over the years, as well as celebrity attention, which has helped to inject climate change concerns into mainstream pop culture. It feels as if the threats posed by climate change have finally started to capture public attention. This is very important as public awareness can help drive changes in consumer behavior and consumption patterns that can have a real effect at the policy level. Additionally, the private sector has caught on that renewable energy and low-carbon technologies are good investments and now some of the largest banks in the world are investing hundreds of billions in funds that promote clean energy.

There is no question that the tides are turning, the world is starting to move the right direction, and that carbon emissions will be reduced over time as we enter our third industrial revolution -- the clean energy revolution. The question is will this transition be fast enough to avoid climate disaster and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. From everything I’ve learned attending the UN climate conferences, I can’t stress enough that we must act swiftly and comprehensively to ramp up our collective efforts pre-2020. It will be hard. But we have the technology and we have the ability. We just need the will. That’s where all of us come in to keep the pressure on and ensure our governments do the right thing for our future.